How quitting boxing to dance made Vasyl Lomachenko a better fighter

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

There are plenty of comparisons to be made between Floyd Mayweather, the longtime pound-for-pound king of boxing who retired in August after a professional career that included a 50-0 record and nearly $1 billion in purse money, and Vasyl Lomachenko, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and the man many believe is Mayweather’s successor as the best fighter in the world.

Both began boxing at early ages, trained by fathers obsessed with making them great. Floyd Mayweather Sr. began training his son when he was 3. Anatoly Lomachenko started his son in boxing while he was just four and living in Ukraine. Both, though, had gloves on their hands when they were infants and still in the crib.

They were, though each unique, destined to be fighters.

But the one striking difference between the two is the four-year gap that exists on Lomachenko’s record. He boxed from the time he was 4 until he was 9, when Anatoly Lomachenko decided that was it.

Vasyl left boxing behind and became a dancer. It was all part of Anatoly’s grand plan to build the greatest fighting machine in the world. To do that, Anatoly felt his son needed the best footwork possible, and the way he decided to do that was through dance.

Convinced after four years that 13-year-old Vasyl had the footwork he needed to win at the highest levels, Anatoly ended the dance training and put his son back into boxing.

The result helped lead to a 396-1 amateur record that included Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012, as well as the 2009 and 2011 amateur world titles and a runner-up in 2007. As a pro, Lomachenko is 9-1, has won two world championships and on Saturday defends his WBO super featherweight title against Guillermo Rigondeaux on ESPN at Madison Square Garden in New York.

It’s the first time in professional boxing history that men who each have won two Olympic gold medals will square off as pros.

Vasyl Lomachenko, of Ukraine, works out at a New York boxing gym Wednesday. (AP)

“This is history,” said Bob Arum, the fight’s promoter. “Boxing has been around a long, long time and this has never been done. That’s why this fight is so special. It’s a historic night.”

Arum has promoted boxing for more than half a century, and already had promoted the careers of legends like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran when Lomachenko was born in 1988.

Mayweather signed with Arum’s Top Rank in 1996 after winning the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

When you consider the greats Arum has promoted also include Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Alexis Arguello, Aaron Pryor, Manny Pacquiao and Oscar De La Hoya, it’s jaw-dropping when Arum calls Lomachenko the best boxer since a young Ali.

From 1964, when he stopped Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title, until 1967, when he was banned from boxing for refusing induction into military service, Ali might have been the perfect fighter.

He was virtually unhittable at his peak, and his blazingly fast hands and quick feet enabled him to land powerful shots without much risk.

“That’s no bull,” Arum thundered when he was challenged on his statement. “What this kid can do, there aren’t many who have ever done the things he does.”

Many will dismiss Arum’s words as hyperbole, and for sure, Arum has a vested interest in making Lomachenko seem as mighty as possible. Those same critics will suggest that the best boxer in the ring Saturday night may not be Lomachenko.

There is merit to that argument, as well.

But when Lomachenko negotiated his first pro contract with Arum in 2013, he wasn’t so concerned about a signing bonus or how much he’d be paid. He wanted Arum to guarantee him he’d fight for the featherweight title in his pro debut.

Arum tried mightily, but could not make it happen, though he did manage to get him into a world title bout in his second match.

Now, a grizzled veteran with 10 pro fights at age 29, Lomachenko understands his unique position in the sport. He knows how good Rigondeaux is, how difficult he is to hit and how many expect him to have trouble breaking through Rigondeaux’s defense.

Lomachenko is confident without being arrogant and he’s never seen a fighter he couldn’t hit. That dance training from so many years ago allows him to move his feet like few in boxing history, and he’s able to dance into position to punch an opponent while minimizing the risk.

So he scoffs at the notion that he’ll somehow have difficulty breaking down Rigondeaux. Lomachenko has a size advantage – he is the champion at 130 pounds and Rigondeaux normally fights at 122 – and he intends to use it.

He has said he will “squash” Rigondeaux, though he stopped short of promising a knockout. What he promised was plenty of hard contact.

“I am going to walk through him like a tank,” Lomachenko vowed. “They are two different things, ‘I am going to walk through him like a tank,’ and, ‘I am going to knock him out.’ They are two different impressions. I am like every single fighter [and] going into the ring I have in my mind to finish the bout before all the rounds are over and to get the victory before that. There is a good possibility that the fight will end before the 12th round. I am not promising to knock him out, but I am promising to squash him.”

He’s not a consensus No. 1, and not even a knockout of Rigondeaux, arguably the best defensive fighter of his generation, figures to change that. Boxing is at a peak now, with elite fighters like Lomachenko, Rigondeaux, Terence Crawford, Errol Spence Jr. and Gennady Golovkin all vying for the top honor.

But beat down Rigondeaux and it’s going to be a statement. Rigondeaux has never, not in the pros and certainly not in the amateurs, been beaten down and pummeled. He’s magnificent, particularly defensively, and he is at least as quick, if not quicker, than Lomachenko.

Arum, though, cautions against underestimating Lomachenko.

“The great fighters, in fights like this, they elevate and they prove their greatness,” Arum said. “You watch. People think I’m bull[expletive] them, but I’m serious. There hasn’t been anyone like this kid for a long, long time.”

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